Version tested: Xbox 360
I'm cynical about blatant nostalgia, mostly because I'm incredibly susceptible to it. Alarm bells go off whenever it seems that something – be it book, movie or videogame – is relying on my rose-tinted glasses to work. All the same, give me the sound of a Spectrum loading and I melt like butter.
My attachment to the SNES is less ingrained, though I do love a great many games from its heyday. So when I say Cthulhu Saves The World is already one of my favourite games of 2011 you can be sure I've not been swayed by its astonishingly precise pastiche of early 1990s JRPG cliches, strident synth music, chunky menus and all. It's simply a really clever, hugely enjoyable game, and it's as much honest tribute as cheeky spoof.
The title tells you all you need to know about the story. Cthulhu, the legendary Old God of H.P. Lovecraft's clammy horror mythos, returns to our realm, but before he can lay waste to humanity, his power is sapped by a mysterious sorcerer. The only way for him to reclaim his infernal abilities is to become a hero. So Cthulhu sets about saving the world so he can destroy it himself.
Portrayed in chunky pixellated form, he's rather adorable for a gibbering emissary of aeons-old evil. He's also wonderfully grumpy, arguing with the text-box narrator who introduces his tale and reluctantly playing the good guy, even as he gathers a posse of unlikely companions who chide him for his genocidal impulses.
Gameplay is much as you'd expect if you played any of the early Final Fantasies or Breath of Fires. You scurry around a top-down world map, entering towns to stock up on new weapons and get new quests, then trotting off to the nearby dungeon, shrine or forest to do whatever needs to be done.
Experience is earned along the way, health and magic points grow ever higher and new attacks and abilities keep things fresh. From a structural point of view, it's a note-perfect recreation of the genre as it once was.
That's not to say Cthulhu Saves The World is solely an exercise in mimickry. There have been tweaks and improvements to the timeworn template as well. You can save anywhere, for example, a welcome addition that nonetheless leads Cthulhu to scoff, "What is this? A first-person shooter?"
Random encounters inevitably rear their head, but the game has a smart way of preventing them becoming too annoying. Once you've endured 25 battles in an area the random intrusions are stopped, although you can still trigger a fight from the menu if you need to grind some XP.
Also worthy of note is the branching level-up system. This marks each new level with a choice between two evolutions of the character's skill set. There's a nice choice between passive abilities, simple stat boosts and new or improved attack types. It soon becomes clear this is a game that requires real strategic thinking as building a balanced party is essential.
The depth carries across to the combat system, which also walks the tactical tightrope with quiet confidence. Health is restored after each victory but magic points are not. The quicker you beat each battle the more MP is restored, but this generally means using up MP to deliver your strongest attacks. Enemies also get stronger by 10 per cent with each round, giving you another reason to win as quickly as possible.
Playing off against this is a combo system which sees you racking up points for every hit against an enemy. The combo score can then be cashed in by using extra-strong attacks that can deal thousands in damage, but require careful resource management to build up.
As ingenious and satisfying as this tug of war can be, it can also become a hindrance. If the game has inherited one of its forebears worst traits without improvement it's the often infuriating navigation. With no map, and sprawling dungeons made up of identical features repeated over and over, it's easy to spend too much time trudging up and down baffling corridors, trying to work out which way you need to go. The random encounters stack up, the MP goes inexorably down and irritation starts to seep in.
Such annoyances are fleeting, however, and the delicious silliness of the cutscenes and characters helps to wash the taste away. You don't need to be a fan of Lovecraft or JRPGs to enjoy the humour, though it certainly helps. An enemy called Beltman, made entirely of belts, is funny enough as it is even if you're not aware of Square's fondness for draping its characters in straps and buckles.
Most of the genre in-jokes are less esoteric - such as the priest who asks Cthulhu if he's come to pray for salvation, only to be told, "No, I just like walking around villages talking to everybody. Force of habit."
What makes Cthulhu Saves The World all the more impressive is that it's an Indie game. The prevalence of half-arsed rubbish on that channel means that it's hard not to feel a little patronising when something truly great comes along, as if we're patting a small child on the head and saying "Well done! You made a real game!"
This is a real game. It doesn't have the longevity of the titles that inspired it, setting a blistering pace that allows you to hammer through chapters at a fair old lick if you're not bothered about finding every last loot chest along the way. But even in this truncated form you can expect to experience a good seven to eight hours of challenging combat and endearingly daft story.
There's also a Score Attack mode and Highlander mode, which restricts you to just Cthulhu in battle, showing that smaller games can boast big rewards.
For 240 MS Points (just a shade over £2.00) it's pricier than most of its Indie peers. But Cthulhu Saves The World also justifies that investment by being more fun than a lot of 1200 Point Arcade games. At this price, you'd be a gibbering madman not to give it a go.
8 / 10